“Shway, wait for me!” Sundarrajan shouted, as he ran out of the school gate. Shway was his next-door neighbour and close friend.
“Come fast, or else the last boat will go away. I want to catch some fish before we go home.” Shway waved his hand from the end of the road.
Sundarrajan finally caught up with him, huffing and panting. Shway laughed. “This is the best way you can lose much of you tummy, Sundar.” And he gently massaged his tummy.
Sundarrajan pushed his hand away in disgust. “I am not fat, ok?. I am only healthier than you. If anyone picks up a fight, you will need me to beat them up. Without me, you are nothing.”
“That is absolutely correct.” Both clasped their arms on each other’s shoulders and ran towards the beach, laughing.
Sein was seething in anger as he marched towards a small gathering of workers, who were having their lunch break. His brother, Naing, came running from behind and caught him arm.
“Brother, no! They are not our enemies. The Buddha does not teach…” But, he was cut short.
“Don’t ever try to preach to me what The Buddha taught.” Sein stopped abruptly, pointing a finger at Naing. “These Tamils think they can take away our jobs! How dare they?” Then he turned towards the group, who had, by now, stood up and were staring at him.
With a loud voice, he addressed the group. “Listen up, you all. The Japanese army is coming. They will liberate our land and we will finally gain our independence. You better go back to your land, or else you will all die at our hands. Understand?”
Naing pleaded with folded hands. “Brother, please! There are better ways to settle this. Let’s get out of here, now.”
But Sein pushed him away with such force that Naing fell down to the ground. “You are a coward! The British ruled over us for one hundred years and brought these… these people to take over our lands, and you want to show them compassion.” He turned to face the group again. “Let the Japanese come. I will see that each one of you is cut into pieces.”
Saying this, Sein marched away. Naing stood up and looked at the group. He saw Govindan, his neighbour, standing in the front and shook his head. Govindan gestured to him to follow his brother. They would talk to each other at night.
The group of men approached the British official in charge of the port and reported the events. But he was cynical.
“The Japs he said, eh? They are no match for our Royal Navy. Let them come. We will show what the British Empire is made of.” He laughed and walked away, smoking his cigarette.
Govindan and Naing sat by the pier that night.
“I was born here, Naing. I started going to school when you were born. You and your brother, Sein, have come to school holding my hand all the time, remember?”
“I remember everything, Anna. My whole family is indebted to you and your parents for so many things. But, you know what happened twelve years ago. All of us had lost our jobs during the strike and your people, just came and took over our jobs. Sein has been seeking revenge ever since. Most of us got our jobs back after one whole year and with only half the original pay. Now, with the Japanese attack being imminent, there is news that the locals will join them to overthrow the British. Once our land is liberated, all of you will lose your jobs, land and everything, Anna. People like Sein are just waiting to extract revenge on your kind.” Naing started to cry uncontrollably.
Govindan stared into the vast Bay of Bengal. “My father came to this land to earn an honest living. He never cheated anyone and always taught me the virtues of being good to others. Till now, I hope, I have lived upto his expectations. I don’t know what all tests my Kadavul will put me to. I just pray to Him that I can make Sundarrajan into a fine man one day.”
Naing controlled himself and wiped off his tears. “Anna, don’t worry. I will see that no one harms you. If you decide to go back, I will help you. But if you decide to stay, you can always come to my house. I will protect you and your family till my last breath.”
Govindan laughed. “You think, after all these years, I will put you into trouble? Come, let’s go back home. Otherwise, Marlar and Pankajam will think that we were out drinking.”
Naing also lightened up. “You know, Marlar trusts you more than me on drinking.” But he immediately froze. “What are you two doing here so late in the night?”
Govindan also lost his smile. “Sundar, Shway, you two were supposed to be studying! Why are you here?”
Shway got up from behind the boulders first. “Ahpay, what were you two talking about? Is it true what we heard from Uncle Sein?”
Sundar also got up. Crying uncontrollably, he ran towards Govindan and wrapped himself around him. “Appa, I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to die.”
Govindan could not utter a word. He patted Sundarrajan’s cheeks to console him. Naing just nodded to him and, silently, led Shway away from them. Govindan followed and the two entered their respective houses, which were opposite to one another. The locality had a mix of both Tamil and Burmese families.
Once she put Sundar to sleep, Pankajam took Govindan outside. “Ennanga, that Marlar was saying something to me in the afternoon about a war. I hope we will be all right.”
Govindan was grim. “Nothing is confirmed, dear. The British official said that we need not fear the Japanese because our navy is superior to theirs. But where are the ships? There is only one ship docked at the bay. He cannot fool us because we go out to sea every day to catch fish. But he says there will be reinforcements from Calcutta and Madras. We have to wait and see.”
Suddenly, there was a commotion at the end of the street. A group of men, wearing brown uniforms, emerged and marched down the street. As they approached Govindan’s house, they stopped. Govindan was shocked to see Sein come out of the group and standing face-to-face with him.
“This is my last warning to you and your kind. This is not your land. Go away before the Japanese invasion or else, you will be responsible for the consequences.”
Govindan just stared at him. Pankajam pulled him out of his trance and led him inside the house. Sein led his men away, hurling abuses as they crossed houses where Tamils lived and incited the locals to join him to “cleanse the land of their forefathers from the filth of the British and Indians.”
Sundarrajan had woken up in the commotion and again, started crying. Pankajam took him into her lap and gently patted his head. “Don’t worry, Kanna. Nothing will happen to us. Lord Murugan will help us always. Forget all these bad things and go to sleep.”
Later that night, she found Govindan out of bed. She came out to see him speaking with Naing. Marlar was also with him. Seeing Pankajam, Marlar called her aside.
“Both our sons are sleeping, so it is better that I tell you here. Many people of your clan are planning to leave by boat tomorrow. My man is trying to convince your man to do the same. Don’t think twice. Sein has become uncontrollable. He will do anything once the Japanese land on our soil. Here, keep this,” and she placed a gold necklace in Pankajam’s palm. “This will help you start a new life in your land.”
Pankajam was shocked. “Marlar, why are you doing this?”
“This is the maximum I can do for all that you and your man have done for our family. Please accept this a token of gratitude. May your God help you.” Saying this, Marlar turned and rushed into her house, sobbing. Pankajam turned to Govindan without knowing what to do.
Naing had both his hands on Govindan’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, Anna. As long as I am alive, I will guard you and your family. They cannot do anything as long as I am guarding you. I will ensure that you three board that boat tomorrow. You will be safe. Trust me.”
Govindan sighed. “I have trust in only you and Lord Murugan, Naing. Come Pankajam. Let’s get some sleep.”
Before entering the house, Govindan held Pankajam by her arm. “Listen, we cannot let Sundar know the truth, ok? We will convince him that we are going to Madurai for a family wedding. Just say it is some distant relative’s daughter. Think of something, ok?”
Pankajam shook away from his grip in disgust. “Why does it always have to be my relative? Why can’t it be your relative?”
Govindan rolled his eyes in frustration. “That is because he knows that there is no one else in my relation who is in Madurai, that’s why. Don’t you remember? We explained both our family trees to him last month. You only bragged about so many relatives back in Madurai. Pick up someone and tell him. Understand?”
“Ok, ok. Now let’s get some sleep.” Pankajam started to get into the house, but Govindan again, grabbed her by her arm.
“Now, what is it?”
“Come here,” and he took her into his embrace. It was after so many years and Pankajam placed her head against his shoulders. “We will get out of this, see? I am with you. Nothing can harm us. You are strong. This too, will pass.”
Govindan patted her on the back of her head. “Yes, everything will be all right.”
“So, you are going to Madurai? For a wedding?” Shway looked suspiciously at Sundarrajan as they stood outside each other’s doors.
Marlar called from behind. “Why do you have to ask so many questions, Shway? Come, help me with this coconut. Later, you have to go and buy rice for me.”
Shway stared at Sundar for some time and disappeared into the house. Sundar was lost and looked left and right as he saw known faces carrying huge bundles on their heads and walking towards the port. Are they all going to Madurai? It seems as if it is going to be a very grand wedding.
Meanwhile, Govindan and Pankajam had packed all they could and eaten their last meal in Rangoon.
Govindan looked at his wife. “No matter what happens, you will always be near me. Do not leave my side even for a second, ok?”
“Don’t worry. I will always be near you. You take Sundar on your shoulders. Otherwise, he will run away somewhere.”
As they got up to leave, a series of explosions were heard in the distance. Suddenly, a huge commotion started as everyone started running.
Govindan understood where they were headed. “They are running towards the ferry terminal. Come, we have to go quickly to the boat, or else, they will go away without us.”
Naing came out with his traditional dagger in hand. “Come, Anna. I will take you till the boat. Don’t worry about anything.”
“Thank you Naing. Let’s go.” With a grim face they joined the other Tamil families towards the ferry terminal. Sundarrajan was jolly – after all, they were going for a wedding.
As they approached the docks, they were confronted by a large group of people in brown uniforms, blocking their path. Govindan flinched. Sein.
Sein came up in front. He held the Nghat kyee taung dha – a traditional, but dangerous sword used by the Burmese Army during the Anglo Burmese war of the 19th century.
He snickered, as he stared at the Tamil group. “Look at all of you – scared and running away like rabbits. But you think I will let you go so easily? I will now have my revenge.”
Govindan tried to diffuse the situation. “Sein, my boy. We mean no harm to you and your people. You know that very well. Please let us leave in peace.”
“Yes. I will let you go… but in pieces!” Raising his voice, Sein raised a war cry and drew his sword. The other men in his group joined him in the war cry and also drew their swords. But Naing stepped forward.
“Sein, do you want to avenge the defeat at the hands of the British by killing defenceless group of men, women and children? Is this what The Buddha has taught us? If you want revenge, you should be charging at the British officials and not these people. And how can you forget all the good things which our Anna taught us during our childhood? He preferred you over me most of the time because you were more intelligent than me, remember? He used to give payasam on his festivals to you first and then to me. Have you forgotten all those days? All these people have helped us in some way or the other and you know it very well. They just want to go away, brother. Let them go peacefully.”
Sein sensed that his men were having second thoughts as he started to hear murmurs behind his back. Slowly, to his utter disbelief, they started to disperse until he was all alone. Naing went up to him and put his arm on his shoulder.
“See, now you are alone and these Tamils, whom you wanted to cut into pieces, are many. But they will not harm you. You are like their own child. Go now. Go and liberate our land. I will join you once I get these people safely on to the boat.”
“Appa, how long will we be in Madurai?” Sundar, Pankajam and Govindan were sitting by the deck, watching the sunset as the steamer moved over the choppy Bay of Bengal towards Madras.
“Usually, we stay for four months dear,” replied Pankajam. Then she turned to Govindan.
“Ennanga, this time you should take me to Rameswaram also, ok? It has been a long time since we took the blessings of The Lord.”
Govindan smiled. “Yes, you are right. We will go after the marriage.” Seeing something in his hand, he turned to Sundar.
“Kanna, what is that in your hand?”
“This is the one photo which I have of Shway. I will keep it safe. This way I will never forget him.”
Author’s note – The story is a fictional account and is set in Rangoon in the year 1942, just before the Japanese invade the country. Many locals, including the majority Bamar community, sided with them to overthrow the British and drive out the Tamils, who had taken most of the jobs in Government offices, ports and plantations in Rangoon and other parts of Burma ever since the Anglo Burmese wars of the 19th century. This period and the cultural revolution in 1964 forced many Tamils leave everything behind and flee to Madras, Port Blair, Singapore and Malaysia.
- Kadavul – Tamil word meaning God
- Anna – Brother
- Ahpay – Burmese word for Father. Similar to Appa in Tamil
- Ennanga – Tamil word used by wives to address their husbands.
- Kanna – Tamil word used to call small boys.
- Shway – Burmese word for gold
- Sein – Burmese word for diamond
- Naing – Burmese word for winner
- Marlar – Burmese word for garland
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